The Bronze Age Origins of Greek Civilization

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Prince of the Lilies, fresco in the palace of Minoan Knossos, Crete, about 1,650 BCE. Wikipedia.

Bronze has been an important metal for millennia. Some two thousand years of Greek history come under the Bronze Age, 3,100 – 1,000 years BCE. This was a time of enormous creativity and courage when institutions and civilization took deep roots, blossoming into Archaic, Classical, and Alexandrian Greece.

Cyclades and Lemnos

The Cycladic islands in southern Aegean and the island of Lemnos in northern Aegean developed the earliest mining and metallurgy in Greece. The polis of Poliochni in Lemnos distinguished itself by its pioneering architecture and metallurgy. It helped certainly that Hephaistos, the god of metallurgy, craftsmanship, advanced technology, fire, and volcanoes, had one of his workshops in Poliochni. Who could resist such a divine model? Because of Poliochni, Lemnos became an outstanding center of metalworking and technological innovation in the Bronze Age.

The Cyclades also made considerable advances in shipbuilding, propulsion, and sea travel with the assistance of pictorial representations of the constellations. In fact the Cycladic islanders were so much caught up in nautical technology, sea exploration, fishing, and culture of ships that they were the first people in the Aegean to incise them on pottery, carve them on rocks, and create lead models of them. The Greek archaeologist Christos Doumas, who excavated and studied the iconic Cycladic island of Thera, reported that the material culture of Cyclades was original and rich in architecture, pottery, marble carvings and sanitation.

The sanitation practices of the Cycladic islands are telling of the advanced culture of Bronze Age Greece. Ceramic pipes under paved streets delivered clean drinking water to many homes and other pipes took wastes away from homes. These sanitation practices arrived in Western Europe some five thousand years later, in late nineteenth century.

Minos and his Cretan sea empire

The large Aegean island of Crete and mainland Greece flourished during the Bronze age as well. Crete in fact built such a sophisticated civilization that it became nearly a paradigm for the development of Greece.

During the time that the Argonaut expedition took place, sometime in late thirteenth century BCE, it is possible to speak of Pax Minoica, the Minoan Peace in the Aegean and Crete that lasted for about 1,000 years between the second and first millennium BCE.

Minoica and Minoan come from Minos, son of the supreme Olympian god Zeus and Europa / Europe, daughter of Agenor, son of the sea god Poseidon and Libya. Zeus took the form of a bull and attracted Europa and brought her to Crete.

Winged Talos robot Hephaistos made for Zeus who gave it to his lover Europa in Crete. In order to protect Europa and Crete, the robot flew over the island 3 times a day. The bull is the form Zeus took to approach Europa. Courtesy Numismatic Museum, Athens.

Europa gave birth to Minos, Sarpedon, and Rhadamanthys. Europa’s brother, Kadmos, kept searching for her until he reached the polis of Thebes in Boeotia or Central Greece. Meanwhile, Minos became king of Crete. He married Pasiphae, daughter of the Sun god Helios. Minos, like his brother Rhadamanthys, was a great legislator and judge.

The father of history, Herodotos, and the greatest Greek philosophers, Plato, and Aristotle, say that Minos exercised tremendous power at sea. Aristotle speaks of Minos’ thalassocracy, an empire of the sea in the Aegean and the Mediterranean (The Politics 1271b32).

Crete, Aristotle says, was intended by nature to be dominant in Hellas. It is a large island well situated in the midst of Hellenes. This is true. Crete was without military forts or an army in the second-first millennium BCE. Thucydides, the great historian of the Peloponnesian War in late fifth century BCE, also says that Minos’ navy was the first in the Greek world. With such a pioneering force, Minos became a master of the Aegean, ending piracy in the sea, and governing the Cyclades with his sons (The Peloponnesian War 1.4).

Mycenaean Greeks

In 1625 BCE, however, the explosion of the Cycladic island of Thera did some damage to Crete and its Minoan culture. In 1450 BCE Mycenaean Greeks (from Mycenae in Peloponnesos) were in charge in Knossos, one of the key states in Crete. But even before the coming of the Mycenaeans to Crete, mainland Greeks possibly borrowed ideas of economic, cultural, and political organization and development from Crete. The reverse is also possible. After all, both Minoans and Mycenaeans were Greeks.

In the second millennium BCE, the era of Minos, the important states in eastern Crete were Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, and Zakro. In continental Greece the states that made a difference next to Mycenae-Argos were Pylos in Peloponnesos, Thebes and Orchomenos in Boeotia, and Iolkos in Thessaly. The last two, Orchomenos and Iolkos, played a decisive role in the Argonaut expedition to Kolchis, the Greeks’ Far East. All these Bronze age states had monarchical bureaucracies that supervised specialized labor for domestic and international trade. They did large-scale works like the draining of lake Kopais in northern Boeotia.

Pylos

Pylos, a state in southwestern Peloponnesos, for example, had some 50,000 people with 2,500 in the city of Pylos. The king of Pylos had 400 bronze smiths employed in the palace. They worked for him and the state. But they also made goods from gold, copper, tin, and amber. These raw materials Pylos imported in order to fashion them into the necessary and beautiful artifacts for its trade and culture.

Another far-reaching political institution of Pylos was in the administration of the kingdom. Pylos had small governing communes called damos, which evolved into demos and democracy in classical times.

Mycenaean products for export found their way all the way to England and central Europe. Both Mycenaeans and Minoans improved shipbuilding and navigation. The Minoan and Mycenaean influence on each other expressed itself in a variety of institutions and practices, including the carving of seal stones, ivory, gems, gold, sculpture, and painting.

The Griffin warrior

An American couple from the Classics Department of the University of Cincinnati, Jack L. Davis, and Sharon R. Stocker, hit the jackpot in 2015 when they excavated a tomb near the palace of the Homeric King Nestor in Pylos. The treasures were dated to 1,750s BCE. The couple were so excited and proud by their findings they wrote a book about the importance of Pylos in Bronze Age Greece: A Greek State in Formation: The Origins of Civilization in Mycenaean Pylos (University of California Press, 2022).

This is a wide-ranging and very interesting story of Pylos and its seminal role in the emergence of Greek civilization. Davis is the main author of this book. Stocker joins Davis in the last chapter and the epilogue. Davis is the Carl Blegen professor of archaeology at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. Blegen made important contributions to Greek prehistory while professor of archaeology at the University of Cincinnati.

Davis and his wife, Stocker, argue that Pylos was fundamental in the emergence of Greek civilization. This conclusion in 2022 reflects the praise of the Mycenaean Greeks by the Greek Culture Minister Melina Merkouri in the book Mycenaean Kosmos: Five Centuries of Precocious Greek Civilization, 1600 – 1100 BC. The book was published in Greek in 1989.

In 2017, Sharon Stocker almost repeated Merkouri’s enthusiasm for the Mycenaeans. She said: “The Mycenaeans sowed the seeds of our common traditions, including art and architecture, language, philosophy, and literature, even democracy and religion. This was a crucial time in the development of what would become Western civilization.”

In their 2022 book, Stocker and Davis were astonished and delighted by their discovery of exquisite golden rings, weapons and armor, silver cups, bronze cups, and jugs, including gems and stones decorated by beautiful scenes of life in Mycenaean Greece. One tiny agate stone depicted a young and handsome warrior king killing two men. The warrior looks like Achilles, the best of the Achaeans, when Achilles was killing the Trojan superhero Hector: heroes out of the pages of the Iliad of Homer, though this would be impossible because the Trojan War took place centuries after the exploits of the Cretan Griffin Warrior king. The Trojan War took place in late thirteenth century BCE.

Davis and Stocker described their spectacular finding of the Griffin Warrior as “one of the finest works of prehistoric Greek art ever discovered.” The art was on a tiny gem or sealstone. In their book, A Greek State in Formation, they explain the meaning of the carved gem:

“An extraordinary find from Pylos… from the grave of the Griffin Warrior, may be the finest example of glyptic art from the Greek Bronze Age ever found. It is a Cretan work of the New Palace period [1750 – 1700 BCE]. The face of this seal stone bears a representation of combat that draws on an iconography of battle scenes… The level of detail in the representation of weapons and clothing, like the attention given to the physiognomy of the human bodies, is without parallel. We realized almost immediately that we had unearthed a masterpiece.”

The Griffin Warrior is killing his enemies. The Cretan engraved gem is dated to about 1750s BCE and found in a tomb near King Nestor’s palace in Pylos, Peloponnesos. Sharon Stocker and Jack Davis made the discovery. Courtesy of the Palace of Nestor Excavations Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati.

Davis tried to explain how most people of Pylos made a living working the land. He imagined a Medieval or modern feudal class system. He assumed the Greeks of Pylos must have done things Medieval Europeans and twenty-first century Americans / Europeans — do. He says: “there had been an intensification in land use [in Pylos] in the Early Mycenaean period [about 3,000 BCE], one that we think reflects the creation of elite benefices, landed estates granted in tenure to those at the top of the social and political order.”

In theory, Davis may be right. Inequality, even slavery, has a very long history in both Greece and elsewhere in the world. After the Trojan War, Sparta did enslave the descendants of Mycenae and Pylos, making them Helots for centuries. What is problematic with Davis’ interpretation of Pylos culture is his use of the word “intensification” for describing the raising of more food. But “intensification in land use” is an expression of modern farmers addicted to chemicals and machines.

In addition, Davis is caught up with his own time and society, using freely concepts that may not be relevant in understanding the society at Pylos more than 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. He says:

“It is hard to imagine that integration within the Minoan world did not play a decisive role in promoting growth in trade, intensification of agricultural production, greater acquisitiveness on the part of mainlanders, more specialization in craft manufacture, and the formation of larger political units through wars of expansion. Systems theory anticipates that growth in subsystems eventually reaches a point where any additional increase, however small, will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. A system will be transformed and restructure itself in an unprecedented manner. It was at that point that Mycenaean society stabilized itself within a new social system based on the institutionalization of inherited leadership, rank, and privilege.”

Once again, Davis may be right, though, as I said, the possibility is negligible. He even challenged the Greek identity of some Mycenaeans. He says: “It can no longer be assumed that all those who shared Mycenaean culture were Greek speakers or that Mycenaean culture was an inevitable expression of any latent Hellenic identity.”

Davis is not alone. Many archaeologists excavating archaeological sites in Greece come to those fields of potential surprising discoveries and knowledge with their heads full of non-Greek metaphysics, that is, monotheistic ideas, multiculturalism, notions of superiority of modern farming, technology, science, and political ideology of their home country and university that educated them. So, their findings, if any, go through the filters of this metaphysical baggage. Modern ideas of what life is about in all cases form an invisible barrier between the archaeologist and the discovered Greek treasures.

Homer and his gods

The classic example of how divided archaeologists are about Greece is Homer and the Trojan War. A few of them see Homer and the Trojan War as history. Homer was indeed the great epic poet ancient Greeks thought and said he was. Polytheist Greeks nearly worshipped Homer and his gods. He was their teacher. Aristotle edited the Iliad for his pupil Alexander the Great. Alexander’s hero was Achilles. The Trojan War took place in late thirteenth century BCE.

However, many archaeologists ignore the sayings of ancient Greeks, much less the nineteenth century paradigmatic findings of Heinrich Schliemann, an amateur German archaeologist who unearthed Homer’s Mycenae “rich in gold” and Troy, “the sacred Ilion” and “the trainer of horses.” Schliemann was so successful because he trusted Homer. But many modern archaeologists and classical scholars who are afraid of the gods in the epics of Homer keep saying Homer did not exist and brand the Iliad and Odyssey as fiction.

The doubters of Homer see the gigantic stone walls the Mycenaeans built for the fortification of their towns or settlements and conclude that Mycenaean Greeks lived in terror and perpetual war. But perhaps they did not. The Cyclopean walls might have served the cause of peace.

Minoans and Mycenaeans

The Mycenaeans and Minoans were Greeks. They probably had their occasional fights, but they also had centuries of cooperation and peace. They sent members of their communities to the Cyclades, Rhodes, and Miletos in the coast of Asia Minor. They had trading settlements in southern Italy and Sicily. The Minoans had a strong influence in the Cyclades, particularly on the islands’ architecture, pottery, and metallurgy. But because the Cyclades had such a distinguished tradition of navigation, the Mycenaeans-Minoans left them pretty much alone.

Davis, however, speaks of Minoanization among Mycenaean Greeks in the mainland. He says the Pylos elite found Minoan culture irresistible. The Greek leaders of Pylos, Davis says, “knew the finer aspects of Minoan society; they wanted them for themselves; and they drew on its material culture as their own society leapt to a higher level of complexity.”

This speculation has the ring of truth. We all wish to improve ourselves. And the Minoans and Mycenaeans advanced their own culture by borrowing from each other. They sowed the seeds for later Greek achievements in techne, craftsmanship, architecture, astronomy, piety for the gods, science, and the arts of civilization.

So, despite flights of imagination, Davis and Stocker have broaden our understanding of Bronze Age Greece, particularly in Pylos. Their discovery of the Griffin Warrior and numerous other treasures was a just reward for their persistence and hard work – for 25 years. They should become models, especially for Greek archaeologists who need to do much more excavations. All of Greece is an archaeological site.

A Greek State in Formation by Davis and Stocker is a very important and timely book. It adds another Cyclopean stone to the edifice of knowledge and insight being built on how Greek civilization started and matured in the Bronze Age and, eventually, became the backbone that shaped Archaic, Classical, and Alexandrian Greece and – more than a thousand years later — the West.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.